Consultants Save Time and Effort...if They’re Right for the Job

By Peter Lowy

Hiring a consultant is often one of the most cost-effective and quickest ways a nonprofit can solve a problem, but, similar to bringing on permanent staff, the process is more likely to succeed when guided by best practices.

The following guidelines should help:

1) Know whether you need a consultant at all
Sometimes a “contractor” or new full time staffer fits the bill better than a full-fledged consultant. A consultant leads by helping you identify your problem, devise a solution, then implement it or train someone at your firm to do so. In contrast, a contractor follows. The role of the contractor is to carry out assignments, to implement plans laid out by someone else (you or perhaps your consultant), to perform tasks and actions in the context of a previously defined “big picture.”

2) Define your endpoint and work backward
What results are you looking for by the time your consultant has finished with the job? Do you want to increase your sales, decrease employee turnover, improve production capacity? What’s your final objective?

Sometimes, you need a consultant to help you define your endpoint. Take care that the consultant doesn’t redefine your problem in light of irrelevant solutions or specialized skillsets. If a consultant’s approach is canned or non-customized, you could end up with significantly greater problems than you started out with.

3) Evaluate alternatives
Working with consultants is like working with anyone else: the more comfortable you are with that person, the more productive the relationship will be. Interviewing multiple candidates will help you find the person who is the best match.

4) Look for experience
One of the main reasons for hiring consultants is because you need special expertise. Look for someone who can transfer their experience from other engagements to your case.

5) Look for learners
Good consultants constantly learn. They’re open minded and they’re intellectually engaged. They’re experts, but they’re also confident enough to say when they don’t know something.

6) Ask for input
By all means, invite your candidates to share their thoughts about the engagement being discussed. They may even help you refine your goals. But be careful not to ask the candidate to do the work before you actually engage him or her.

7) Ask for a proposal
After you’ve met with one or several candidates who you feel could help, ask for a written proposal. This is an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate their understanding of your business problem and provide outline a framework for addressing it.

8) Check references
This is always a good idea. While references will always speak positively (or else they wouldn’t be offered), be sure to find out how the consultant handles unforeseen problems. This often is when people show their true colors.

9) Be honest
If something is nagging you about a particular candidate, say what’s on your mind. It will clear the air, and it’s a great way to get the relationship off to a good start.

Peter Lowy, publisher of massnonprofit news, has extensive consulting experience. Email to him at or call 617-734-9980. Thanks to Geoffrey Day for his thoughts and input.
May 2015